An Open Letter to Maclean's...

Steve Maich's recent column, "Nothing to blog about" , extolls the same tired sentiment and wild speculation that the rest of the mainstream media wrote about a year ago. That many members of the mainstream media--the Times and BusinessWeek being notables--have since accepted that blogging isn't a fad, and are experimenting with blogs of their own (The Times, BusinessWeek), speaks volumes about the datedness of Maich's article.

The genius of blogging is not the volume of material that's thrown into the public domain, as Maich claims, but the *ease* with which anybody can now publish content AND reach an audience. No longer are the MSM the gatekeepers of what is newsworthy. Now, blogging-enabled media democratization has created thousands of content sites of that bring an equal number of different perspectives to the conversation.

Maich calls into question the number of active blogs that exist. Why, I'm not sure--whether there are two or four or eight million active blogs right now is irrelevant. The point is that blog creation is growing [3], period, and with it grow a huge number who are willing to contribute to the shared repository of knowledge that makes up the internet.

Maich pokes fun at surveys that indicate that people have never heard of a blog but claim they read blogs. This, to me, is silly, and it's quite probable that while people have no idea what the term "blog" means, they read them regularly--except they call them "websites". How else to explain that influential blogs that get more traffic than the LA Times, ESPN.com, and The Economist? It almost seems silly to differentiate between MSM and influential blogs (the latter have become the former in terms of influence), but the major difference between the MSM and influential blogs is that the former is about broadcasting, and the latter is about conversation. Through conversation, ideas blossom, facts are checked, perspectives are challenged, and relationships are formed. Through broadcast, I get one media company's version of the news. Indeed, smart people like Mark Cuban now have their own platform from which they can voice feedback to what they see as an incorrect version of the truth propagated by the MSM.

Maich claims that blogs don't hold reader attention very well, and the proof is that "the average blog reader stays on a site for just 90 seconds." Blog content is often shorter than a traditional news story, and blog posts generally have links to many other blog posts, encouraging readers to leave the site to take part in the conversation about a topic. When a blogger wants to become an authority on a given subject, the ideas he generates are what pay dividends for him. Those ideas become even more valuable as they gain traction elsewhere, and if that means he has to send visitors to other blogs to read followups, reactions, or criticism, it's worth his while to do so. Traditional media, on the other hand, can't exist without attracting eyeballs and increasing inventory to bring in more ad revenue. After all, it's expensive to support hundreds of salaries, and production and delivery costs are high. But when you're a blogger and only have to support yourself, ideas are more important than impressions, thus rendering the "average time on site" metric irrelevant.

What about blogging's impact on business? Dell Computers is currently getting publically roasted because several bloggers and MSM outlets have picked up on their declining customer service. Wouldn't a Dell blog providing open, honest communication with customers help assuage the perception that Dell doesn't care about the situation? Press releases or stuffily formal spokespeople won't cut it when customers respond to authenticity. A blog is not a panacea for customer service, but when done well, a blog provides a means for connecting with customers on an authentic level. Influential Microsoft blogger Robert Scoble outlines some best practices for a corporate blog, and Sun Microsystems COO Jonathan Schwartz and GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz execute most of Scoble's best practices quite well in their blogs. Really, what company doesn't want a direct channel to listen and respond to customer feedback?

As I was reading Maich's column, I was wondering how long it would be before Macleans launched blogs for their writers. I was amused to find a link to Maich's blog at the end of his column. A skeptic might say Maich was hedging his bets, but I prefer to keep an open mind. Why does Mr. Maich blog, if he doesn't believe it provides some additional utility over the traditional model of publishing several times per month? I would love to hear what Maich has to say in respone to this letter, but he doesn't have comments enabled on his blog. I am also interested in hearing reaction to what I've written here, and so in addition to emailing this to the editor and to Mr. Maich, I am posting it on my blog.

Best,

Kareem Mayan
Los Angeles, CA

Update: Link to Maich's column changed.

Update 2: Maich and I went back and forth a bit on this, and he posted a summary of our email exchange on his blog. Here is the full exchange, if you're interested:

From: Steve Maich
To: kareem mayan
Date: Aug 24, 2005 4:51 AM
Subject: RE: Reaction to Nothing to Blog About

Kareem,
Thanks for your note. This is the most reasoned reply to my column I've received.
Since you plan to post it your blog - I assume you won't mind if I post it to mine. Please let me know.
FYI - we don't enable comments to our blogs because we don't yet have a moderator, and we need to concerned about libel.

I don't have time to give an exhaustive reply, but let me address a couple of your points.

1- I don't think blogs are a fad. They'll still be around 10 and 20 years from now, because they're addressing a desire that has existed for decades. People like to broadcast their feelings, that's why they write letters to the editor, now they can write several letters a day and post them in a place where others can read them and rely, without having to rely on a letters page editor to give them voice.

2-As far as I can tell, the MSM is still the gatekeeper of what's newsworthy. Blogs are the work (generally) of people who do something else for a living. Almost all the content in the blogosphere is derivative. Everybody says the bloggers brought down Dan Rether, but CBS was the originator of that story and it wouldn't have stayed alive if not for the focus of Fox News.

3-I'm all for conversation. I'm all for shared experiences etc. And blogging has clearly tapped into a latent desire that people have to speak and be heard. But I can say from personal experience that trying to feed a blog while keeping up another full time job is a lot of work. For some people it may become a major hobby, but most blogs simply peter out rather quickly. As a result the "blogging public" is rapidly becoming an identifiable sub set of the population - not a mass phenomenon. That's how it has to be - otherwise the blogoshere becomes impossibly tangled with noise, misinformation and rhetoric. A conversation doesn't work when 8 million people are all speaking at the same time.
If it's just a matter of forming networks of a few dozen people who read each others thoughts, post comments etc. - well, then that's great, but it's not a world changing phenomenon.
How are blogs really that different from the message boards that have existed on the Internet from the beginning?

4- About the other stuff, about measuring the size of the audience and the atteniton of the average reader - you're right, it shouldn't matter to the average blogger who just writes to get his thoughts out there and to connect with other like minded people. But it does (or should) matter to advertisers. Clealy instapundit, wonkette etc., are getting traffic that make them viable ad vehicles. But more than 99% aren't, and won't be.
That's not to say a blog that only gets 1000 hits a week is worthless. To the person who's writing it, it's probably a great outlet, but it's not the foundation of a business.

Finally - as for my blog. It certainly provides some utility. It has deepened my ability to connect with readers. Remember -I didn't say blogs are worthless. I said blogs are not all they're cracked up to be.
I've received a ton of feedback to this article, and it generally breaks down as follows: bloggers are incensed. People who read blogs but don't write one agree. And most people just want to know why I wasted time talking about a phenomenon they'd never heard of.

Anyway thanks for writing and good luck with your blog.

---

Then, my response:

From: kareem mayan
To: Steve Maich
Date: Aug 25, 2005 9:39 AM

Hi Steve, thanks for the reply.

Some thoughts...

>Since you plan to post it your blog - I assume you won't mind if I post it to mine. Please let me >know.

I don't mind at all. Do you mind if I post your reply to my blog? :)

>FYI - we don't enable comments to our blogs because we don't yet have a moderator, and we >need to concerned about libel.

I've heard this before when I worked at ESPN.com, but I think it's a cop-out. Many big sites allow comments on their stories (Yahoo, CNet, Engadget, Slashdot, etc, all of which get more traffic than Maclean's), and I believe legally there's a difference between making libellous statements and hosting a site that has libellous statements made by somebody else.

>2-As far as I can tell, the MSM is still the gatekeeper of what's newsworthy.

I guess we should redefine "MSM" in your sentence to mean traditional media, because we both agree that some influential blogs have become part of the mainstream media. So, if you replace MSM with "traditional media" in your first sentence above, I have to disagree with you. I would agree that most news is still broken through traditional media outlets, but that is changing too (Om Malik, a technology journalist, frequently breaks news on his blog, and there are others who are doing it too).

>Blogs are the work (generally) of people who do something else for a living.

This is true, but it's relevant only if you believe that breaking news is the only kind of news coverage that's worthwhile.

>Almost all the content in the blogosphere is derivative.

I agree, and that's why it's valuable. As I wrote earlier, this enables people to fact check, contribute their perspectives, experiences, and inside knowledge about a story--basically, to have a conversation. Jeff Jarvis said it better than I ever will when he recently wrote:

"you don't want to own the content or the pipe that delivers it. You want to participate in what people want to do on their own. You don't want to extract value. You want to add value. You don't want to build walls or fences or gardens to keep people from doing what they want to do without you. You want to enable them to do it. You want to join in."

(I highly recommend reading his post. It's great food for thought, whether you agree with him or not.)

The point i'm trying to make here is that derivative works add value to the consumption of media, and this value comes in the form of context and perspective provided by others. No single journalist can ever provide this kind of value.

>But I can say from personal experience that trying to feed a blog while keeping up another full time job is a lot of work.

Amen, brother.

>For some people it may become a major hobby, but most blogs simply peter out rather quickly.

Source? I see that 56% of blogs are considered active by Technorati, a company that tracks blogosphere growth, and 13% are updated weekly. That's not insignificant, especially considering that the number of blogs created doubles every 5.5 months.

Beyond that, there are an increasing number of professionals in many domains who blog to establish themselves as authorities on a given subject, which extends far beyond a hobby.

>As a result the "blogging public" is rapidly becoming an identifiable sub set of the population - not a mass phenomenon.

An identifiable sub-set of the population that's doubling every 5.5 months, yes.

> That's how it has to be - otherwise the blogoshere becomes impossibly tangled with noise, misinformation and rhetoric. A conversation doesn't work when 8 million people are all speaking at the same time.

When you have 8 million so-called editors, the people who make the noise are silenced pretty quickly. And when the noise, misinformation, and rhetoric becomes counterproductive, you simply don't visit that blog again. Content determines which blogs become successful and which don't. And really, let's not kid ourselves: there are very few blogs that get millions of visits a day, but the people who read vertical blogs are generally the influential types--the Mavens, Connectors, and Salesmen that Gladwell wrote about in The Tipping Point. I'd much rather have a small audience of those folks than a huge audience of people who aren't as interested in the things I write about and thus who probably don't have as interesting perspectives to share.

>If it's just a matter of forming networks of a few dozen people who read each others thoughts, post comments etc. - well, then that's great, but it's not a world changing phenomenon.
>How are blogs really that different from the message boards that have existed on the Internet from the beginning?

Thery're different because of their permanence. Discussions drop off the front of message boards as the conversation dwindles, but blogs are easily searchable and have links that can be referenced in perpetuity, as long as the blog stays up. That provides a huge body of collective knowledge that is frequently useful--it's cetainly been useful to me in having this conversation with you!

>4- About the other stuff, about measuring the size of the audience and the atteniton of the average reader - you're right, it shouldn't matter to the average blogger who just writes to get his thoughts out there and to connect with other like minded people. But it does (or should) matter to advertisers. Clealy instapundit, wonkette etc., are getting traffic that make them viable ad vehicles. But more than 99% aren't, and won't be.

Agreed, but most blogs have to support one or two people, not huge staffs.

>That's not to say a blog that only gets 1000 hits a week is worthless. To the person who's writing it, it's probably a great outlet, but it's not the foundation of a business.

Agreed, but if you broaden your definition of success to include, say, getting a job, selling more of your product or service, or expanding your network, then a blog can help you do that. Here's how: demonstrating that you are an expert in a domain can both make it easier to be found by a future employer, and make discussions with them about a job much more productive (I'm speaking from experience on this one).

If you run a business, a blog makes an excellent vehicle to connect with your customers and to show them you are an expert at what you do. If you do it right, you'll almost certainly increase the number of widgets sold or consulting opportunities that open up.

Finally, writing a blog can help you build your personal and professional network, something that I, for one, value. Plus, any incremental ad revenue from a blog doesn't hurt.

>I've received a ton of feedback to this article, and it generally breaks down as follows: bloggers are incensed. People who read blogs but don't write one agree. And most people just want to know why I wasted time talking about a phenomenon they'd never heard of.

I'm not incensed. You seem like a reasonable guy, and I'm sure you'll at least see things from a different perspective, if not come around to believe it. I also think, though, that you are missing out on informing your audience about a tool that could help them grow both professionally and personally.

>People who read blogs but don't write one agree.

Maybe they should try writing one, and see what benefits it brings.

>And most people just want to know why I wasted time talking about a phenomenon they'd never heard of.

That's unfortunate. When someone's making a stink about a phenomenon I've never heard of, I often try and find out more about it. But that's just me.

Looking forward to your response,

Kareem

---

Steve's reply:

From: Steve Maich
To: kareem mayan
Date: Aug 25, 2005 10:51 AM

Ok Kareem – you’ve convinced me that blogs are more useful than I gave them credit for. But I still maintain my central thesis – that they’re massively overhyped.

On libel – The laws are different here in Canada. Up here, a person only has to prove they were damaged by what you publish, then the onus is on us to prove we did everything in our power to make sure the stuff we allow to be published was a) true, or b) fair comment.
I wish we had American libel laws – but unmoderated comments would be like putting a million anonymous posters on the payroll.

I don’t think breaking news is the only stuff that’s worthwhile, and I can see great value in the public “adding value” to news stories through online conversations, additional research etc. But I still see traditional media as the central engine of information. It’s also, for the time being at least, the only kind of media people are willing to pay for.

Personally – I think Technorati’s 56% number is inflated. It refers to any blog updated in the past 3 months as “active.” I’d say the 13% updated at least weekly is a better measure of what’s active. And even technorati says more than half of the blogs being created are no longer being updated a few months later. But this is a debatable point.

Anyway – you make a lot of good points here. For me the bottom line is: blogs are useful, and they are accomplishing something. But they’re mainly useful to those who are actually blogging. Are blogs an interesting supplement to the MSM? I’d think there’s no question about it. Are they a profound step forward in the way people communicate, like the printing press, the telephone, or email? That’s where the hype gets out of control in my opinion.

Anyway, thanks for the feedback.

Steve Maich

---

I still find Maich's claim that blogs provide more value to the bloggers than the, um, bloggees to be curious. Without anybody reading (even infrequently), what's the point?

And, I still think that blogs are a huge step forward in how people communicate (that is, create and consume content). I mean, what other time in history have the tools of content production and distribution been so cheap, easy, and available to so many? And, when in history have you been able to sit on your couch and read about first-hand accounts from the war in Iraq, or life behind the scenes at a newspaper in Beijing, or what life is like in Cuba? I didn't even include links to the Afghani and Iranian blogs i found, but they're certainly out there.

It is good to know that there are journalists out there who can entertain multiple viewpoints at the same time. Ironically, media polarization in the quest for ratings pushes me straight into the arms of blogs, where I can get a daily dose of fresh, different perspectives that make me think instead of change the channel.

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About

Hi, I'm Kareem Mayan. I co-founded eduFire, an online video tutoring company.

I've done time at ESPN and FIM.

I advise WorldBlu, helping them build democratic companies.

I moderated a council for Creative Good.

And, I helped bring Barcamp, a technology un-conference, to LA, which is where I live. I am now living and working in cool cities around the world.

More about me.

Opinions stated here are mine alone.

Contact: blog -at- reemer

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